What We’re Reading

From Nathalie:

Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton. 

I could not put this book down.  It’s beautifully written and illustrated by Leanne Shapton, whose stunning Native Trees of Canada was wallpapering my neighbourhood bookstores a few years ago.  She has now published a memoir about her years as a competitive swimmer, and aside from a fascinating view into the life of a competitive athlete, Shapton treats us to beautifully articulated insights into what it means to live for that life of competition.  Here is a sample of her precise prose: “Say I’m swimming with people, in the ocean, a pool, or a lake, and one of them knows about my history as a swimmer, and remarks to the others, ‘Leanne’s an Olympic swimmer.’  I’ll protest: ‘No, no, I only went as far as the Olympic trials—I didn’t go to the Olympics.’  But the boast bobs up like a balloon, bright and curious to some, wistful and exposed to me.”  Her ability to see herself from these multiple angles is, I think, the key to the success of this memoir, and though I am about the farthest you could possibly be from a competitive athlete, I found a lot to identify with in her observations about herself and her place in her world.

Speaking from Among the Bones by Alan Bradley.bradley

Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce mysteries are, hands down, my all-time favourite mystery series.  Flavia, the narrating detective, is an expert in chemistry (knowledge which always serves her detection efforts), and she is eleven.  Her limits as a narrator, and the wonderful ironic gaps that emerge when a child narrates a murder mystery, only add to the books’ charms.  I don’t know how I managed to miss news of a new book from Bradley; I usually have these things on wishlists months ahead of publication.  Imagine my delight when I opened my weekend Globe and Mail books section, and saw a review.  I kid you not, the minute I read about its publication, I ran out of the house to buy it.  I had read it all by bedtime.  Bradley is Canadian, but he captures life in an English manor house and village with an impeccable ear for dialogue.  If you have not heard of these books, begin at the beginning with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, and delight in the fact that you have four more books ahead of you.  As my gluttonous devouring of this book may indicate, I cannot recommend them highly enough.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.51MZ8248R0L__AA160_

Originally published in 1980, this is a book that calls to be savoured.  I read a book like this and think, “This woman was born to be a writer.”  There is a voice and a vision here so powerful, so her own, that there is no doubt that she has a vocation for it.  This is not the work of a writer’s workshop or of an agent and editor who will take a manuscript and try to make something marketable out of it.  It was a beautiful and devastating read.  The narrator is a girl whose mother has committed suicide, and she and her sister are left to navigate their way through childhood with a series of hapless guardians.  The plot is unhurried, the prose is some of the best I’ve ever had the joy to read:  “The immense water thunked and thudded beneath my head, and I felt that our survival was owed to our slightness, that we danced through ruinous currents as dry leaves do, and were not capsized because the ruin we rode upon was meant for greater things.”

From Beth-Anne:


Small Wars by Sadie Jones.  We meet Hal Treherne at his graduation from Sandhurst where it is revealed he has aspirations to follow in the footsteps of his decorated father and grandfather.  At this celebration, Hal meets Clara, the sister of a classmate.  Clara and Hal marry and settle into a happy, mundane routine but Hal grows frustrated by his post World War 2 military desk-job and longs to see action and prove his worth to his military family.  Hal readily accepts a transfer to Cyprus and Clara, although hesitant to leave their neatly carved existence with their young twin daughters, agrees and is hopeful that they will find a peaceful life safely ensconced within the confines of the British base and the sun-kissed Cypriot climate.  Shortly after they arrive, Cyprus explodes into a full-fledged revolution and Hal is charged with regaining order of the British colony.  Hal’s eyes are soon opened to the atrocities of war and he quickly learns that not everything is as black and white as his days at Sandhurst.  Sadie Jones writes with such rich description and her characters are achingly real, deeply flawed and stayed with me days after I finished with the book.


The Almost Archer Sisters by Lisa Gabriele.  Beth and Peachy couldn’t be more different.  Beth lives a self-absorbed, face-paced life in the New York City and Peachy, a stay-at-home mom to two young boys lives a simple existence with her husband and their hippy, hair stylist, draft-dodging father in rural Ontario.  The story is not very believable and is painfully predictable but what separates this story from any run-of-the-mill drugstore paperback is Lisa Gabriele’s writing.   On page 122-123 Peachy gives her sister Beth a complete run-down of what she can expect from her day as a stay-at-home mom.  The passage extends for two pages by the conclusion packs a punch that is illustrative of the spunkiness and complexity of her characters.

“ Get Sam to help you carry things, Beth.  He’s strong enough and he likes to.  Your show’s on tomorrow night, so make sure you tape it for Lou because he plays softball.  He’ll pick up the boys.  They eat hot dogs for dinner there.  Beau meets them after work.  But since you’re staying, make Beau’s supper tonight.  For tomorrow, it’s Chinese, but pick up some iceberg lettuce at Silvano’s next to the Laundromat.  But don’t buy anything else there, it’s too expensive.  Lou likes to make the dressing.  While Beau eats, draw a bath for Jake.  Make sure you get behind his ears.  Sam takes showers.  But if he’s in there more than 15 minutes, knock.  It’s rare for him to seize in there, but you never know.  Don’t let him think you’re checking.  Just pretend you have to go.  They can have dessert before bed.  Nothing chocolate.  And kudos to you if you can find the time to fuck my husband again in between all of that.”


The Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K. Lee.  It is not as common to come across stories about World War 2 not set in Europe. Janice Lee transport her readers to 1940’s Hong Kong, a vibrant expat community, living lavish lifestyles and caring little about the impending war until it is much too late.  The story is about a British national who finds himself in an interment camp while his Chinese-Portugese lover remains on the outside facing challenges of her own to ensure her survival.  Lee intertwines two story lines, the second in post-war Hong Kong follows many  of the same nationals who are trying to rebuild their lives in the midst of a mystery that has left several of their own dead and a new comer at the centre of the storm.  I devoured this book while a blizzard blanketed much of the Eastern seaboard and while the snow fell, I was lost on the gritty and sour streets of Hong Kong.

From Carol (whose books appear to be thematically related)

urban homesteadThe Urban Homestead:  Your Guide to Self-Reliant Living in the Heart of the City 
by Kelly Coyne and Eric Knutzen.  An entertaining, amiable read about how to live more sustainably in urban environments.  Everything from creating systems for water re-use to permaculture to raising (small) livestock in a backyard.  I particularly enjoyed the combination of matter-of-factness and humour of these authors, and their general optimism about their pursuits.

urban homesteadingUrban Homesteading: Heirloom Skills for Sustainable Living 
by Rachel Kaplan and K. Ruby Blume.  More of the same, with lovely photos, and some useful five year plans for larger projects.  But the tone was heavy and less engaging that The Urban Homestead – if you’re curious, I’d recommend the light paperback by Coyne and Knutzen over this almost coffee table book.

farm cityFarm City:  The Education of an Urban Farmer 
by Novella Carpenter.  A memoir about a woman who sets up a farm on a vacant lot in a rough neighbourhood in Oakland, California.  Carpenter is a good writer, and the book unfolds easily, both informative with an interesting spike of inspiration here and there.  She also has good material, and recounts the adventures of raising and killing animals, including two pigs (not pygmies) in the inner city.  As a squeamish reader who doesn’t eat meat, I skimmed/skipped the passages that related in detail the demise of these creatures, but still found the book to be a wonderful read.


I Called My Mother

My husband and I have some strengths.  Dealing with household maintenance is not one of them.  Several weeks ago, when we noticed the odd moth flying out of the pantry, we probably both knew this was a sign of something.  True to form, though, we both ignored it.  Perhaps they would go away, or someone else would do something?  Perhaps they they were flying in from outside, it being summer and all?

Perhaps not.

At, like, three weeks post-partum, I decide that maybe the moths are actually coming from within the pantry.  In a fit of courage and competence, I pull out the drawers of the pantry and take a look.

What do I find?  Just, in a bunch of foodstuffs, the nauseating sight of what I will refer to as “bugs” to spare  you the disgusting details.  I pinch a corner of some contaminated bags with a finger and a thumb and throw them in the garbage.

Even I know this will not do.  The cupboards need to be emptied and cleaned and all the affected food tossed.  In addition to six deep shelves of the pantry are also three cupboard shelves on the other side of the fridge that need attention.  It’s a big job.  BIG.

So, I do what any self-respecting, almost-forty-mother-of-three would do.

I call my mother.

Not just call.  I practically hunted her down.  When she wasn’t at home, I left a message there and contacted my sister.  My mother was supposed to take care of my sister’s daughter the next day but understanding the desperate circumstances, my sister arranged alternate childcare for her daughter.  Yes – we changed my mother’s schedule for her.

Did I consider other options?  Fleetingly.  I certainly did not want to do it.  And I did not trust my husband or a hired cleaner to do it, because I believed that a missed crevice would mean the bugs would just come back.  I wanted someone really careful.  An expert.

I did ask my mother if she would please help, but this was kind of a formality.  I arranged a babysitter for my two older boys, and told my mom that the job would take approximately two to three hours, with both of us working.

And possibly the job would have taken about that long, or maybe only an hour or two longer, had I actually helped.  I preferred, instead, to watch my mother work from the couch and moan periodically at my lot.

In my defence, I was tired, and I did have to nurse the tiny baby.  On the offence, however, I didn’t have to nurse for over eight hours, which is how long my mother worked to make my kitchen less attractive a homestead for the bugs that had perched there for God knows how long.  The truth is, I’m not sure I’d have been less useless had the kid count stayed at two.

Predictably, my mother was annoyed at points.  She said things like, “Don’t talk to me”.

She also discussed the situation with my kids, because of course when the babysitter returned the boys, my mom was still working. To my older son, she said matter-of-factly, “Your mom is bullying me”.  She was more cheerful with the three year old.  While teetering on a chair to reach the back of a high shelf, she sang out “Nat, you want to catch me when I fall, Nat?”

At one point, my mom pulled out some wild rice in a glass dish covered with a plastic lid. Although we could see no bugs in this container, my mother didn’t dump its contents straight into the garbage.  Rather, to be thorough, my mother retrieved a small plastic produce bag from a rack in our cupboard, placed the bag in the kitchen sink, and carefully poured the wild rice into it.  But when she lifted the bag to put it in the garbage, the rice gushed out of a huge hole in the bottom of the bag.  “This useless place,” my mother seethed.

I lowered my head and didn’t make much noise, but couldn’t stop my body from shaking.  Eyes on the floor, I could feel my mother staring at me, pissed, and eventually I was overcome, laughing with abandon, tears coming down, at her expense, at her trying so hard to help me, at the life that is mine and that I apparently cannot manage.

And then, instead of taking the rice and whipping it at my head, which was surely in order, my mother burst out laughing too.  Which is all the testament you need about the sheer manipulative power that children lord over their parents for all time.

As the night waxed on, though, and my mom got visibly tired, my brazenness waned.  The job turned out to be huge; I didn’t think it would be that bad.  Or maybe I did, and that’s why I called for her?  The last thing I said to my mother when she left late that night, and when I called her first thing the next morning, was “I’m sorry”.

How did my mom react to my pathetic requests for help, apart from giving it?  Well, she did say that she didn’t want to come over for two weeks, that she needed a break from her weekly visits.  But then she showed up at our door the following week as usual.  And in response to my morning-after apology, she just chuckled and said, “It’s okay, dear”.

One of the perks of exclusively breastfeeding a newborn is reading more than I have in ages.  A few days after The Big Clean, I read this excerpt from Kristin van Ogtrop’s book Just Let Me Lie Down (p. 138):

Mother load:  The hard, enduring truth that you are selfish and your mother is not, and that you must pay her selflessness forward to your own children, who may never thank you and certainly will never love you as much as you love them.

Good God, I hope the last part of the sentence isn’t true; but up to the word “children”, the statement sent rounds of recognition ringing in my head.

Of course I ought to have cleaned my own cupboards and I won’t be making such ludricrous requests of my mother in the future (I hope, I hope).  But I’m in the midst of a fairly high dose of selflessness myself these days, with three kids five and under, and I guess I was simply seduced by the luxury of having someone to fall back on.  Not just any someone, but someone who wouldn’t say no.  My mother, in other words.  It’s hard to describe this kind of security, but its value, I suspect, is understood equally well by those of us who have it and those of us who don’t.